I hope all of you (yes even the elder readers) listened to that song by Jay-Z at least for a couple of seconds because regardless of that about which he is actually rapping the chorus perfectly represented the mood on Thursday, the day when we departed finally departed Florence for Parma. We brought our stuff down from the room, had one last meal at the Central Market and got on the bus towards Parma. Immediately I knew this would be quite the trip because the driver spoke no Italian and didn’t know the address to which he was bringing us. I had to call our director and figure it out. Oh well, all in a day’s work for the translator in the group!
Was I sad to leave Florence? Not really. Have you ever taken a vacation to one place and stayed there for too long? That’s kind of how the end of the Florence trip felt. We did not have any really difficult work so it literally felt as if we vacationed in the same city for 3 weeks. I’m not saying that I hated it (I LOVED IT!) but after a while the city gets old and one becomes ready to move on…on to the next! We were all ready (at least I assume) to leave behind the Americanized city full of tourists and obnoxious American bars to find ourselves properly immersed into Italian culture in a city famous for its food and beauty. Florence will forever be a beautiful city with the greatest artwork in the world, but I needed to leave and I needed to find the true Italy. Parma awaited and I could not control my excitement.
Was I nervous? A little bit. From this point on the vacation was over. School would begin soon and ready or not I would be forced into using my Italian. All of my classes will be in Italian, including Medieval History, the History of Parma, Italian Language and an independent study on European politics. Seems kind of heavy, but I get my own program in the Medieval history course and a tutor. Italian should be easy and so will the history of Parma (taught by one of our program directors). I had already been in contact with our host mom, Nice (pronounced Nietzche like the philosopher), so I was not afraid of what kind of person she would be. Every part of me was ready for this adventure, for this long awaited journey into the real Italy.
And the real Italy did not disappoint. We arrived in Parma after a long, uncomfortably hot, bus ride to the group of host parents and our two wonderful directors Caterina and Betta (two sisters who happen to have the same names as my Italian cousins!) awaiting us. I was introduced to the moms as Giacomello (kind of like the ‘good’, or as I like to say benevolent, James). What a wonderful way to step off the bus! Abby, Kim, Katie and I foundNice who took us over to our house. On the car ride she spoke first to me in Italian and we conversed for a bit before she explained to the others that for the first week she would speak in English but after that no more! I was tired so I didn’t get everything she said to me, but I didn’t find it too difficult. We got to the house and she told me to bring the girl’s baggage upstairs since I am the man of the house (haha, yeaaa). We settled in briefly and then had cake and some wine as a welcome to the house. We met the other resident of our humble building, a 93 year old woman named Anna who was the nanna for Nice when she was a kid. It happened to be her birthday so the we had a little party. How perfect is this place? We already felt at home and we had only been there for 10 minutes.
Nice happens to be the sweetest person in the world. Honestly. She made it blatant that her house is our house, that our friends are her friends and that for the next three months we would be her children. Whatever we need just ask, her door is always open. She’s funny, lively and kind. The girls and I were in amazement at our luck to be living here. Besides having Nice around our house is right next to a beautiful park where we can run and hang out. It is also on the river which runs through Parma and about a 5 minute walk from downtown. My room is small, but cozy and situated in the arch of our house (awesome). A wonderful “mom”, a wonderful house, a cool “grandma”, living near the center of Parma, with a park nearby to boot. Yea, I don’t have it made it right now.
Our welcome dinner was, as it just so happens, in a restaurant literally underneath our house. What a welcome meal! We started with prosciutto, pancetta crudo (raw), salami and cured pork shoulder all from the Parma region. Now I’ve had good prosciutto and pancetta and salami in my life but nothing compares to this. This is directly from the source. This melted in the mouth. The prosciutto was unbelievably soft and fatty without being too salty. The salami was incredibly porky and semi-sweet without ruining the cured taste of salami. We then had crostini with tomatoes and baked polenta with blue cheese. All delicious, but the king pin of the meal was the next course; the pasta. We had both fresh ravioli with spinach, herbs and ricotta and a kind of “gnocchi” which was actually just flower baked into cream and cheese. The fresh ravioli were subtle with a light butter sauce while the gnocchi brought a wave of creaminess. Indescribably good. We had chicken breast with a lemon sauce (again chicken here is completely different from American) and some salad with fennel. The vegetarians got a radicchio salad with truffles. Lauren, one of the vegetarians disliked the truffles so she gave them all to me! I got to eat slices upon slices of black truffles…wow. All of this on top of the wine of the region, Lambrusco, a kind of bubbly red wine particular to this region and I immediately believed why Parma is known as the food capital of Italy.
We woke up early the next day for a bit of orientation, but mostly had to fill out paperwork to get a bus pass and a permit to stay. That was tons of fun dealing with Italian bureaucracy. I swear that the Italians love unnecessarily making people fill out forms almost as much as they love to shop! Once that ordeal was finished we were given the rest of the evening to wander. Abby, Jilly and I went for a run before having our first dinner with Nice. The park is gorgeous and the perfect place to run. It’s roughly a circle with a small lake in the center and paths crisscrossing the outer circle. People walk, bike and run around constantly. Now we longer feel out of place running through the city of Florence, dodging cars, people, bikes and buses while receiving strange looks from the city-dwellers who probably feel invaded as we speed through their leisurely paces.
But better than the park was our first dinner. Nice made us eggplant “Parmesan” except that the eggplant was not breaded or fried but only baked in sauce and cheese. Besides the fact that eggplant can be put on my list of things which I will always eat, this dish was tremendous. Mom, honestly, it contests our family’s eggplant. Nothing will ever compare to the eggplant we had in Greci, but this was very good! With the eggplant we had assorted focaccia breads and rice cakes, which are balls of rice and other foods, such as ground beef, breaded and fried. Along with those delectable foods we had baked onion and a whole head of green cauliflower, not to mention some cod. Wow. If every meal is like this I will certainly be the happiest person in the world. Nice is a fantastic cook and our dinner conversation was lively and fun. She loves having students which really shows in the food and her openness towards us.
A couple of people, including Katie and Brian, have repeatedly stated that this program, the study abroad BC program to University of Parma, was specifically tailored for me. I speak enough Italian to get by and am here to learn more. In Parma few people speak English. I am a history major and besides the amazing art history course we just followed in Florence, we have a history of Parma course here. Finally, I am a confirmed foodie and Parma is the food capital of Italy, arguably the food capital of the world. It’s hard to argue that this program is perfect for me. We even have a cooking lesson once a week with one of the mom’s here! I mean, history, cooking, food, Italian language, travel and the best host mom in the world. What more could I ask for? Parma is all that I hoped for and more.
We went out for a bit after dinner, after meeting up with everybody, and it is a completely different experience here than in Florence. Here people get a drink and then mingle around outside (while it’s still warmish) talking to friends instead of hanging inside a crowded bar and screaming over loud American music. There are few, if any, other Americans. When we start to meet people hopefully they will be Italian or at least only speak to us in Italian. It’s much more relaxed here and I like it. I had my wild years and it is definitely nice to have a change from the crazy party atmosphere of Boston College.
Saturday we had a terrible tour of Parma by a professor from the university who didn’t speak English very well, but it was so bad that I don’t even want to mention it much…
Saturday afternoon, however, Nice took Abby, Kim and I on a ride to Canossa which is a small town in mountains where Matilda, a queen, used to rule over a vast section of Emilia-Romagna Tuscany. I couldn’t exactly figure out her significance, but the Pope and King Henry the IV did visit her. Here is the wikilink about the history of it in case you want to learn more. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Canossa) Anyway, the ride was gorgeous through the Parman countryside, and walking up to the ruins of the castle were pretty cool as well. My foodie self found the largest rosemary “bush” (this was closer to a tree) that I have ever seen and picked some from my mini-kitchen. On the way home Nice regaled us with stories of her past homestay children (most of which were quite hilarious) and then we stopped at a cantina (where they process grapes into wine). We bought some of their wine and then watched as the grapes were pressed for fermentation. It is harvest season and truck after truck drove up to deliver their product for pressing. It was quite the sight. Check another thing off of my list of things to do; go see grapes being pressed!
We rushed home because I had to make it to the Parma v. AC Milan football game (another thing checked off of my list)! I met up with Katie, Brian, Meg and Matt and we ventured towards the stadium, not knowing what to expect. This was a very important game because I guess the two teams are rivals. We weren’t sitting in the Parma fan section but that didn’t matter. We were more there to experience an European football match than to watch the game. It was quite the experience! Unlike American sporting events, people do not get up and go buy concessions constantly. Nor are there loud, giant screens blasting commercials and music. People rarely even stand up to go to the bathroom! The fans are there to cheer (which they do incessantly) and watch the game. It’s beautiful to see how every single person in the stand attentively watches every moment of the game. It’s so important to them. The game means more than a win, it is civic pride. The Milan section roared at every foul, every call against or for their team while the Parma fans tried to equate their might. The anxiety and excitement of the crowd rose and fell as the ball came closer to the net. Every second, every pass was important. No movement escaped the emotions of the fans. When Milan finally scored, on a beautiful goal, the Milan fans erupted and the Parma fans groaned. The Milanese set off an impressive amount of fires (not sure how they managed it), but nobody thought it out of the ordinary. The fans are furiously involved in the game. It’s almost like a college football or basketball environment during the championship game. Amazing.
Sunday, finally, we had a day without any annoying orientation requirements. Instead we had a food party at the home of Anna and Aldo Bonoli, the people with whom we will have our cooking lessons. The food was wonderful, but more importantly was that I spoke with Aldo, who does not speak much English, for most of the time. We spoke of life and travel and I managed to hold a continuous conversation for about an hour. We understood each other very well. I guess my Italian is improving! After that, we headed to a park where there was a covered market. Katie’s host mom and dad, Elisa and Luca, had a stand selling flowers and plants so their two children Leonardo (7) and Lorenzo (5) were there running around. Caterina’s children Joanna (5) and Lisa (4) were there as well. As you can imagine we immediately got sucked into playing with the kids (I did manage to buy Courtney a nice present first!). We ended up staying there for two hours entertaining, and being entertained, by the energetic children. They spoke almost no English so this was the perfect practice for me. As you guys might have already guessed, I really want to be a dad. What better thing for me, then, to be able to hang out with kids while speaking Italian? I had a blast and cannot wait to go to Katie’s house to play Wii and other games with those kids. What a beautiful day!
So, in sum, I cannot be happier in Parma. This place is magical and I only wish that I had more time here. This does not mean that I will not come (don’t worry everybody!), but only that my program had started earlier. It would have been even better to be in Florence a couple of weeks earlier so that then we could be here a couple of weeks earlier as well. I already feel home in this environment. Everybody welcomes us with open arms and treats us as family. The food, the people, the city, everything is wonderful. What an experience! What a life! I don’t know what else I can say. Everybody should come visit here. So for us we are on to the next, on to the next part of our lives and on to the next part of our adventure.